On the shelf
By Ian McEwan
Button: 448 pages, $30
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By the time he turned 70, Ian McEwan realized he had lived and seen enough to write an epic. While he often injected the zest of politics and history into novels like The Innocent, Amsterdam and Atonement, his new book Lessons is on a different scale.
First of all, it covers everything from World War II to the climate crisis and the COVID lockdown, with everything in between, from the Suez Canal crisis to Chernobyl. But while the scope may be broad, the focus is much narrower: a character study by Roland Baines.
“The big picture won’t mean much without the little things that make up our lives,” says McEwan. “They have to feed each other.”
For Roland, the fears and freedoms of childhood give way to an adolescence marked by sexual abuse at the hands of a piano teacher (although it takes him decades to see it as anything but an affair). He later travels to East Berlin and takes a stand on British politics while roaming an erratic existence.
Roland’s first marriage ends so suddenly that he is suspected of murder by the police, but it also gives him the son who gives his life shape and meaning. His second love comes to him gradually and suddenly, although it also brings loss and life. Roland digs through it all without ever really finding a conclusion. “That’s one of my most loathed words,” says McEwan. “It does not exist.”
During a video call from his home in London, McEwan spoke to The Times in a conversation edited for clarity and breadth about why this novel feels so personal, as well as his “duty to be optimistic” about the future.
What inspired the scope of Lessons?
I come into October or November of my own life; I thought about what it would be like to look at someone’s whole life. I try to start each novel as if it were my first, but I can’t escape the self. This time, however, I felt a difference – I felt like I brought everything I knew and everything I had written with me.
A writer friend read it and wrote, “This reads like your LAST NOVEL.” I knew what he meant. This whole life dedication I could have done only now – I had a whole life to live.
Assuming it’s not your last novel, was it difficult to start all over again afterwards?
I felt like I gave this book absolutely everything. I feel completely empty but quite comfortable. I’ve since written some journalism and a short story – I was commissioned to write one that looks to the future with optimism, which I found compelling, although my story is a very nuanced optimism. I have yet to publish and get this novel over with. I have to speak out about this. At some point I can’t say the title without wanting to throw up. But I have no idea what’s next. I have two or three ideas, but none are really urgent.
This novel contains more of your life than usual. Was that a challenge or a pleasure?
I have a creeping admiration and distrust at the same time for writers who endlessly plunder their lives. I’ve dedicated a lifetime to invention, even if small bits of my life have crept in. But this time I thought I’d take my entire existence and turn it into fiction.
I knew I wanted to write about my lost brother. [McEwan discovered late in life that he had a brother whom his parents gave up for adoption before they were married.] This story is so much about the intrusion of public events – World War II – into the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to write about the Suez Canal incident that had a major impact on my life: I found myself in this army camp, as Roland does; My dad was busy, my mom was away, and I was walking around freely with some friends for ten days. As I was writing these scenes, I realized that I became a writer because I wanted to remain available for adventure. It was rooted in this idea that in this camp I touched the sky and freedom.
Still, much of it is fiction. The three most important women in Roland’s life are all fictitious. But I really wanted to inhabit this character, so for certain scenes I stopped myself from doing the usual, taking notes on how the scenes might go, and I would approach them empty-handed. It was a completely different writing experience.
The also fictitious sexual abuse haunts the novel. Was childhood trauma a central theme?
One could say instead of trauma, it is experience. We all have difficulties in our lives and I feel like they are never resolved, they just become part of the baggage you carry on your back. Roland isn’t completely ruined by being sent to boarding school, but it brings big changes for him later. He is not devastated by his sexual abuse, but his life has certainly deviated from the path he expected.
Roland’s first wife said the piano teacher “rewired” his brain. Had he taken care of it earlier, could he have rewired it all over again?
The therapy culture might proclaim that it would have been great for him if he had gone to an understanding analyst or therapist. In my opinion it would have given him some insight into who he was and how he was acting, but I don’t think it would have fundamentally changed his restless sexual nature and his rather elevated idea of what a relationship should offer.
At the end, Roland and his granddaughter remark that it would be a shame to turn a fun children’s book into a lesson. Is that part of your message here?
Novels are best at not teaching lessons but laying everything out in the open. When Roland tells himself that he hasn’t learned anything in life, it reflects my own experience, in a certain mood. When asked, “Tell me the lessons of life,” you must either write “lessons,” or refer to banalities like “kindness is good,” and “love conquers all,” and “be bold and take risks,” or “be careful, what you do.” I have never read a book of advice that has been of use to me.
Has the relationship between heartbreak and hope tilted in your novels? And does that reflect changes in you or in the world?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall there was optimism, a sense of real possibility and a sense that rationality could be applied to the political order. We lost it all. From optimism to foreboding, Roland traces the Berlin Wall to the January 6 attack, but it could also have been the invasion of Ukraine or the recent ice melt in Greenland. This 30-year curve is part of the dissonant music of Roland’s life.
My family was here yesterday and while the grandchildren were in bed we talked about how their lives will turn out. As I listen to my sons and daughters-in-law, I realize they share many of my premonitions. I gave Roland much of that foreboding. At the same time, he felt tremendous hope on a personal level. This tension seems unsolvable.
Where is Roland? And we?
I am committed to optimism. The world is so complex and so interconnected that it is quite possible that in connection with the climate catastrophe there are a million points of light worldwide that will sooner or later connect. It’s a little late, but we could fumble through. Or maybe we don’t. It’s the mixture of hope and foreboding that makes life so complicated.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-12/ian-mcewan-reflects-on-lessons Ian McEwan on his new novel ‘Lessons,’ his most personal yet